Uncertain future for heroes of Kinabalu
Sabahan guide tells CHAI HUNG YIN about the moment when quake hit and the emotional search for survivors
He was on the team leading the Tanjong Katong Primary School (TKPS) kids up the mountain.
Little did he know that he would end up having the harrowing task of leading the injured down and retrieving the bodies of those who died.
Sabahan guide Cornelius Sanan recalled the tragedy when he spoke to The New Paper on Sunday.
He had been waiting at Laban Rata for the TKPS team to complete their Via Ferrata activity so he could take them safely back down the mountain.
Then the quake struck.
Mr Cornelius said he felt the building he was in shaking and he heard people on the upper floor shouting “Run! Run!”.
Then he saw the rocks come tumbling down.
The 34-year-old said his first fear was for the students, as he knew that they were on the mountain.
He saw several TKPS kids who had stayed behind because they weren’t feeling well that day.
“I took them to an open area but aftershocks hit again, so I took them further down the mountain,” he said in a mix of Malay and English.
“My friends and I also discovered more injured pupils and teachers inside Pendant Hut (where the TKPS team had stayed).”
After getting the injured and frightened climbers to safety, several guides, among them Mr Cornelius, made a push to find the missing children, at about noon.
But what greeted them was heartbreaking.
They found the body of one of the TKPS children, who was later identified as Peony Wee, 12.
He said: “We had brought several blankets with us. We used one to cover her body.”
“We then found an injured boy who was still moving, although he couldn’t speak. We tried to help him and aftershocks hit again. Everybody ran to take cover.”
By then, a rescue team had arrived and they carried the injured boy down to safety.
“Four of us took him to Laban Rata using a stretcher.”
Mr Cornelius and more guides went up again to bring Peony’s body down.
He said: “We wrapped her body using the blankets and carried her down.”
The rescue, plus the shock and fear, left Mr Cornelius feeling physically and mentally drained.
He said: “From the start of the incident up to the point when the boy was saved, I couldn’t eat. I could only drink water. I felt weak. I was very sad to see them in that state.”
Over the next two days, Mr Cornelius was among the guides who volunteered for the search and rescue operation, without any thought for pay or their safety.
“They are my clients. I did it willingly,” he said.
The guides have been hailed by climbers as heroes but that is far from the close-knit community’s mind now. They lost four guides in the quake.
And they also face the grim reality of not knowing when they will work again.
Mount Kinabalu and the national park have been temporarily closed.
WORRIED ABOUT FUTURE
Mr Cornelius said: “We depend on the mountain to survive. We don’t have any other sources of income. I’m still thinking of how to feed my family.”
As the eldest child, he shoulders the main responsibility of supporting his family of 12, including his retired father, 62, and his mother, 60, a housewife.
The bachelor has nine siblings — the youngest of whom is 13 years old. Four are still in school and two are working as shop assistants, earning measly wages.
On average, Mr Cornelius earns between RM600 (S$216) and RM800 a month, depending on the number of trips he makes up the mountain.
He goes to the national park every day and waits in line for his turn to guide people up.
He says: “If my queue number is 30 or 40, it is harder for me to get jobs. Sometimes, I return home empty-handed.”
He gets RM150 per trip for a group of up to four people, and RM162 if there are five or six in the group. Each guide can take a maximum of six climbers.
Fellow guide Supani Tuboh, 43, who has to support his family of 11, is worried too. Three of his siblings are also in the same profession.
Mr Supani has been a guide for 16 years and has gone up the mountain more than 1,000 times.
He loves his job for the joy it brings.
Speaking in a mix of Malay and English, he said: “Apart from enjoying the natural beauty of the mountain, I get to also learn about cultures from all over the world when I interact with the tourists.
“We joke with each other while we climb... The jokes make the climb more bearable, making us forget about the hike and the exhaustion. This job is tiring, but fun.”
For now, the future seems bleak for these heroes.
He says: “As the incident is still fresh — it’s only been a week — all we can do is wait.
“Meanwhile, we don’t have any income. There’s still aftershocks... Hopefully after two weeks, we can start to plan how to move on with life. Maybe I can get a job in the hotel industry.
“What’s certain is that there’s uncertainties. Everything is in limbo now.”
'We want to help guides'
GOOD MEMORIES: Miss poh huili and friends with their mountain guides cornelius sanan (in green t-shirt) and mr tumas (in green jacket) at mount kinabalu a week before an earthquake rocked the mountain. PHOTO: COURTESY OF MISS POH HUILI
When Miss Poh Huili read the earthquake reports in The New Paper, she immediately felt she needed to help.
Just a week before the disaster, she and six friends had climbed Mount Kinabalu under Sabahan guide Cornelius Sanan, who had helped the injured in the tragedy.
Miss Poh, 29, who works in a marketing role, said: "Cornelius and Tumas, our two guides, were reliable, encouraging, caring and were pillars of support whenever the climb got too tough.
"There is no doubt they would have risked their lives to protect us if anything had happened.
"...we are thankful and wanted them to know they have people who remember."
Miss Poh and her group of friends are hoping to collect at least $350 to send Mr Cornelius' way to help during this time when the guides do not know when they can next work.
As they had rushed off after making it down the mountain, they had missed taking down Mr Cornelius' number.
She e-mailed TNP to find out how she could reach him and send the money.
"We were very worried when we heard about the earthquake... We are glad they are safe."
''There is no doubt they would have risked their lives to protect us if anything had happened...we are
thankful and wanted them to know they have people who remember.''
- Miss Poh Huili
Amazed by how families stayed strong
For days, the families held on to a glimmer of hope that their children could be found alive.
Hope turned to sorrow when they gradually realised that it was not to be.
But when the tragedy unfolded, counsellors stood beside them. One of them was Ms Malar Palaiyan, a senior guidance specialist from the Ministry of Education (MOE).
As the reality of their loss slowly set in, Ms Palaiyan said the families stayed strong.
Says Ms Palaiyan: "I heard them say things like 'I want to bring back my child to Singapore' and 'If it is meant to be, it's meant to be'.
"What amazed me was the kind of resilience that the parents displayed, how strong they were."
She is one of 18 officers from the MOE, Ministry of Social and Family Development, Singapore Prison Service, Singapore Armed Forces and the Institute of Mental Health, who travelled with the families to Sabah to provide emotional support.
All are trained in crisis management, she says.
Speaking from her work experience, Ms Palaiyan says that "sudden losses" usually result in denial, anger or depression.
Each grieving family has one or two officers attached to them. Their role is to understand what the families need and help them address their concerns.
Besides provide a listening ear, they also take care of their daily needs, such as meals, and eat together with their assigned family.
She did not say how long counsellors have to remain attached to the families as it varies from person to person.
"Every person grieves differently," she adds.
Ms Palaiyan says they do get affected by the tragedy. "We are paired to a buddy so that we can look out for each other. At the end of each day, we hold a group debrief to check in on our thoughts and emotions."
Four who stripped on peak leave, cops hunting for remaining six
The four tourists who took off their clothes on Mount Kinabalu left Sabah on a Malaysia Airlines flight at noon yesterday.
Sabah Police Commissioner Jalaluddin Abdul Rahman said Canadian siblings Lindsey and Danielle Petersen, Briton Eleanor Grace Hawkins and Dutch national Dylan Thomas Snel boarded a Kuala Lumpur-bound flight at 12.35pm.
He said police were still looking for six other foreigners who had stripped naked on the mountain on May 30.
NO PROPER NAMES
Police have been have facing problems in tracking down the six individuals who had not given proper names to Sabah Parks before trekking up the mountain.
The Kota Kinabalu Sessions Court ordered the four to be jailed for three days from the day they were arrested on June 9 and fined RM5,000 (S$1,800) each after they pleaded guilty to committing an obscene act in a public place.
After their lawyer Ronny Cham paid the fines on their behalf, the four were taken to the police station to get their belongings before being released.
Dutch, British and Canadian embassy officials then arranged for the four to be taken to a hotel in Kota Kinabalu for an overnight stay as well as for them to fly home.